Man in the Mirror

Man in the Mirror

The virtues of left unity are still obvious, but the grounds for compromise are harder to see.

Write about politics for long enough and you’ll put some arguments into the world you come to regret. This issue’s special section on the global right has me reconsidering a long piece on American conservatism that ran here in Dissent in 2019. That’s before Joe Biden steamrolled over a primary field that was supposed to be the future of the Democratic Party, barely scraped together a victory over Donald Trump in an election that was supposed to signal the arrival of a new progressive majority, and then presided over an administration that was supposed to mark the end of neoliberalism. It’s also before the summer of George Floyd, when the largest protests in American history were supposed to launch a reckoning that would transform the country.

Five years shouldn’t feel like a lifetime, but in this case I don’t know how else to describe it. Whether you put electoral politics or social movements first, the results have to be disappointing. According to polls, over 80 percent of Americans say that The Most Progressive Administration Since FDR™ has either “hurt [them] personally” or “not made much of a difference.” But at least the Biden team has legislative accomplishments they can point to, even if they next have to explain why voters don’t seem to care. The results from the 2020 reckoning are even slimmer: lots of talk, no significant policy wins, and some shifts in corporate bureaucracy that are already being rolled back.

Which brings me to how the future of conservatism looked to me in 2019. I suspect that one of the main fault lines on the left today concerns how much of what you thought about politics in the Trump era has held up over the last few years. Back then, I believed that the central lesson of Trump’s victory and Bernie’s near upset in 2016 was that the guardrails were breaking down, opening up both dangers and possibilities for our side of the struggle. “The left needs a total critique of its own that shows the way beyond a broken status quo,” I wrote at the end of my account of conservatism under Trump. I had in mind a unifying vision that would bind together the different factions of the left, just as Reaganism had done for the old conservative movement, and Trumpism seemed to be doing for whatever the right was becoming.

I still think that unifying vision is worth striving for, but I wish that I had put more time into working through what we were supposed to unite around. With Trump’s surprise victory and Sanders’s near upset in mind, it was easy to assume that if the dice rolled just a little differently in 2020, the left would get its shot at putting into place its transformative agenda: Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, a Third Reconstruction, and on down the line. The fight would be ferocious, and the gains incomplete, but that’s always the case in politics. The point was that the path was open, and the direction was clear.

Things look a lot murkier today. With the broad left tearing itself to pieces over Gaza while Trump vows to let Netanyahu “finish the job,” the virtues of unity are still obvious—at least to me—but the grounds for compromise are harder to see. If an intra-left grand bargain is out of reach for now, it’s also true that progressive politics isn’t exactly brimming with shining examples of independent thought. That’s the discourse social media makes. Herd mentality is the norm, and the herds are smaller than ever.

For an assessment of how all of this has changed the global right, check out the pieces in our special section. To see the effects on the left, just look in the mirror.

Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.